by Elizabeth Ahlfors
In his fourth Christmas show at Feinstein’s 54/Below, Broadway baritone Norm Lewis’ Nutcracker Cool promises a warm, friendly, “safe place,” away from the fracas and noise of the outside world. It keeps that promise, offering no politics, instead bringing a more reflective show than the department store up-tempo cheer of “Jingle Bells” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” as well as his own copacetic good-nature and amiable patter. Lewis relishes the holiday season and his joy of singing is always evident.
Directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, the mood is casual, fitting the bill for Norm Lewis. After introductory quickie videos of Lewis’ Broadway and TV musicals (appreciative applause for TV’s Jesus Christ, Superstar and Broadway’s Showboat), Lewis made a surprise appearance from the bar end of the room rather than the usual kitchen side. He was wearing a red jacquard jacket (the first of three holiday looks) and with a red-and-green tulle skirt over his slacks, it was obvious that Nutcracker Cool would include a generous share of surprise and laughter along with heart and soul. The tulle skirt? Yes, a questionable choice but it slipped off quickly. A few wrapped presents were distributed, a generous, although time-consuming touch.
Lewis opened with a softly swingy “Toyland,” picking up the tempo the second time around. His vibrant band, led by musical director Joseph Joubert on piano, George Farmer on bass, and Perry Cavari on drums back him with a full sound, with surprising inputs of jazz creativity. Stand-out arrangements were by Joubert, one showcasing Cavari to back Lewis in a percussive jazz interpretation of a dramatic “Little Drummer Boy.”
A magnetic entertainer with a dazzling smile and commanding baritone, Lewis is also a skilled actor making him a favorite of audiences who have seen him in blockbusters like Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Sweeney Todd. His theatricality is impressive, his phrasing focused as he interpreted the romantic intent in a seasonal blues classic like, “Merry Christmas, Baby.” Telling the audience that he used “Home” from The Wiz, in his early auditions, he delivered his rendition and to a calypso beat, he looked back at his stint playing Agwe earlier this year in Once Upon An Island, rendering an ebullient, ” Waiting for Life.”
There was something for everyone but for me, most impressive were his ballads where the heartfelt soulful music showcased his voice with pensive introspection. In Latin, he delivered “Ave Maria” followed by a gentle “Oh, Holy Night,” soaring to crystalline heights. This was almost the show’s high point but then he introduced this evening’s guest, a young soprano, Courtney Johnson, to join him in a heart-stopping, “Bess, You Is My Woman” from Porgy and Bess. Lewis’ passionate voice was lush with tenderness and Courtney, amazingly confident, displayed vocals that were both rich and delicate. Courtney followed with an elegant solo of “Silent Night.”
Lewis offered a shining pop sound in the “The Gift of Love,” and a largely forgotten song written for Barbra Streisand by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “Be Aware.” Also in the Streisand mood, was the more familiar song, “People,” performed with depth and authority. “Why Couldn’t It Be Christmas Every Day” ended the show as Lewis, strolled through the room, wearing a sequined jacket, as glittering as the shimmering mood of melody and magic in this positive Christmas show. The audience left feeling merry, many purchasing his new CD, The Norm Lewis Christmas Album, and lining up for autographs. One of those audience fans was the marvelous Marilyn Maye!
Nutcracker Cool runs from Dec. 17 to 22. Scheduled are special guests, Courtney Johnson on Dec. 17, Nick Cordero (Bullets Over Broadway) on Dec. 18, Milton Craig Nealy (Once On This Island) on Dec. 19, Melonie Daniels-Walker on Dec. 20, Michael McElroy (Broadway Inspirational Voices) on Dec. 21, Pastor Bobby Lewis on Dec. 22.
Photos: Melissa Griegel (www.griegelphoto.zenofolio.com)